Atheist ‘Guide’ Goes Down Wrong Path

Jean Kazez

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011, ISBN 978-0-393-08023-0) 352 pp. Hardcover, $25.95.


Post-millennial atheist writers seem to have moved from stage one to stage two. The nonexistence of God was dealt with by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others in the 2000s. Now in the 2010s, atheists are tackling the nature of morality, free will, the self, and Everything Else. While Sam Harris has devoted one book apiece to religion, morality, and free will (will the self be next?), philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg offers to be our guide to all of the persistent questions, as he calls them, in his new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. His answers add up to a stance you might call “nonchalant nihilism.” It says, “No God, no morality, no free will, no self, no meaning, no purpose . . . no big deal.” Rosenberg isn’t troubled by giving up so much of our ordinary understanding of the world.

Atheism doesn’t so much lead to all these nihilistic positions, according to Rosenberg, as it shares a parent with them—that parent being “scientism,” the view (here wearing a white hat) that “science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about.” When Rosenberg says “science,” he does mean science (as in what people teach and do in the science departments of universities), not reason more broadly. Physics is preeminent among the sciences, he thinks—it describes the rock-bottom components of reality. That doesn’t rule out there being other sorts of facts: there can be, for example, biological or geological facts too, as long as they rest securely on the physical (i.e., physics-revealed) facts. The operative slogan in the book is “The physical facts fix all the facts.” Purported facts that aren’t properly fixed by physical facts are just illusions to be committed to the flames (to steal an image from Hume).

So: fixed by the physical facts or unfixed? That is the question that decides the fate of all sorts of apparent facts, so you’d want the distinction to be crystal clear. Rosenberg starts simply: “the physical facts constitute or determine or bring about all the rest of the facts.” By way of elucidation, he asks us to suppose that our corner of the universe has a perfect duplicate in some very remote region of space. Everything that physics cares about is exactly the same in the two regions. If that were so, he claims, all further bona fide facts would have to be the same, too. Anything not the same would be spurious, illusory, fictional, and destined for the flames.

This lets us acknowledge some higher-than-physics level facts. Being alive, for example, is grounded by physics in the right way to be a reality: if I am alive on Earth, Twin JK is alive on Twin Earth and vice versa. Ruled out are spurious facts such as my being a witch, since there’s nothing to guarantee that Twin JK would have witchhood on Twin Earth if I had it on Earth. Witchhood isn’t constituted by the physical components of the world in the way it needs to be for it to be robustly real. Get thee to the flames!

So far, so good. We want witchhood to fall by the wayside. But can Rosenberg be serious about this gloss on what it means for the physical facts to fix all the genuine facts? I wonder, since that will lead us to some very strange conclusions. In this world, it may be that I shot the sheriff—Sheriff Dan, let’s suppose. On Twin Earth, Twin JK did not shoot Sheriff Dan. She shot Twin Sheriff Dan. Are we really to think that these facts about who shot whom are illusory just because they aren’t the same? Surely not. All signs are that Rosenberg is not completely serious about this account of what it means for the physical facts to fix all the facts, because it’s presented at the outset but not used in the rest of the book.

In fact, there are separate arguments for each extirpation, none related to Twin Earth thought experiments and many rather slapdash. One extirpation stands out both because it is so surprising and because Rosenberg works hard on it. This is the whole business about “aboutness” that spans chapters 8 to 12.

One of our many illusions, Rosenberg writes, is that our thoughts are about things. Rosenberg thinks it’s impossible to see aboutness as wholesomely ensconced in a world made of physical stuff. Thus, it’s illusory and should be thrown out when we’re being serious about what’s really real and what’s not. What’s so problematic here? Rosenberg takes us on a journey into the brain and finds brain stuff lacking—i.e., lacking the ability to support aboutness. When you get in there, all you find is neurons, neural connections, input-output circuits, and such. Circuits are all there is, just about, in the brain of a sea slug, a rat, or a human being, and circuits just respond to electrical inputs with electrical outputs. “That’s why they are not about anything. Piling up a lot of neural circuits that are not about anything at all can’t turn them into a thought about stuff out there in the world.”

Now, that’s not very convincing. You may as well say that the tiniest bits of my body are not alive, so I’m not alive. Or the tiniest bits of a red crayon aren’t red, so the crayon isn’t red. It may be weird that brains made of circuits have thoughts about things, but Rosenberg doesn’t make much of a case that it’s physically impossible.

Rosenberg claims that a generation of philosophers (including Jerry Fodor, Ruth Millikan, and many others) has failed to reveal how aboutness is physically realizable, but he keeps to himself what the various ingredients are that have gone into proposed recipes. Nobody thinks intentionality exudes from individual neurons or circuits. One proposal is intentionality is constituted by a combination of the very complex role that a type of neural state plays in the brain and the relationship between that neural state and the outside world.

Psychology would be an austere and unilluminating science if shorn of all talk of mental content. We couldn’t do the simplest things, such as explain that I succeeded in landing at Charles de Gaulle airport by citing the various thoughts that went into my buying tickets, getting into the car at the right time, etc. Without mental content, we’d be forced to an explanatory level that’s too “low,” like atoms and the void are too low-level to explain why a square peg won’t go through a round hole. Rosenberg apparently sees this and so fudges on what psychology is going to be like after intentionality goes up in flames. Never fear; we’re going to keep talking about the brain as an “information” processor. (“Don’t misunderstand, no one denies that the brain receives, stores, and transmits information.”) Yes, but information tends to be information about something. And when philosophers (such as Fred Dretske) have tried to elucidate mental content using the concept of information, they’ve had in mind a semantic notion—a notion that involves aboutness.

Rosenberg gives the reader a glimpse of some of the debates at the frontiers of the philosophy of mind, and it’s not his fault that intentionality and mental content appear to be fraught with difficulty. They are elusive, and there are real issues about exactly how best to think about mental content so that it can do serious work in scientific psychology. But Rosenberg has given no good argument here why aboutness is out, no matter how carefully crafted or reconfigured, as far as science goes.

One of my frustrations with this book is that Rosenberg comes across as an emissary from the arcane world of philosophy, but he says little about what a singular emissary he is. A fascinating survey published at PhilPapers (philpapers.org.surveys) shows that while most philosophers are atheists (72.8 percent), they do not generally embrace the nihilistic positions that Rosenberg sees as sisters of the same strict parent—scientism. Rosenberg rejects objective morality, saying that our moralizing is a mere adaptation, but the majority of philosophers accept or lean toward moral realism, the view that there are objective truths about morality (56.3 percent); only 12.2 percent of philosophers think, accept, or lean toward there being no free will; and 63.8 percent accept or lean toward some theory of the self instead of dismissing it altogether. The notion that there is no aboutness is a rare stance that philosophers typically treat with derision. There are two possible explanations for the divergence: philosophers don’t come by atheism from the premise of scientism (there are certainly many other routes), or philosophers mostly don’t think scientism leads to the various forms of nihilism that Rosenberg so nonchalantly embraces. Or both.

Whatever the explanation, Rosenberg’s nonchalance is also singular. He doesn’t make a convincing case that we’ll all be fine after we get rid of morality, free will, the self, etc. We’ll particularly not be fine without the notion that our thoughts are about things and that we can have plans and purposes. A news story I heard just after finishing Rosenberg’s book brought this home vividly. It was about Purpose Over Pain, an organization of parents of murdered children. The parents get involved in social activism as a way of coping with the death of their children. The organization was profiled on National Public Radio in connection with the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old Florida boy who was shot down by a neighborhood patroller.

Now, if grieving parents really can’t think about their children, they can’t have purpose over pain. Rosenberg flippantly suggests Prozac for all our problems, but (despite his allegiance to science) he ignores recent research that suggests anti-depressants are no more effective than placebos. In fact, the solution to our problems is often not to descend immediately to the lowest level—to work on our neurons or our bosons and fermions. Instead, it involves deliberately thinking about our problems in new ways—adopting new purposes. Fortunately for us, Rosenberg does not make a convincing case that this aspect of our self-understanding is defective.

Jean Kazez

Jean Kazez is the author of The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life (Blackwell, 2007). She teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.


The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011, ISBN 978-0-393-08023-0) 352 pp. Hardcover, $25.95. Post-millennial atheist writers seem to have moved from stage one to stage two. The nonexistence of God was dealt with by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others in the 2000s. Now …

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